UPDATED: Another departure on the next page.
Alex Chilton, the enigmatic cult figure who first came to stardom as the teenage singer for The Box Tops and later drifted into initially unwanted obscurity with the eventually appreciated Big Star died on Wednesday at 59 years old in a New Orleans hospital. It is believed the cause of death was a heart attack. Here’s a good obit from his hometown paper.
UPDATED: If you haven’t seen it already, check out this House of Representatives floor speech tribute by Steve Cohen (D, Tennessee).
I never saw Chilton on his occasional Big Star tours with drummer Jody Stephens and the guys from The Posies, but I got to see Chilton at J.C. Dobbs, a narrow, little club in Philadelphia in the mid-80s. This was at the height of Big Star cult worship, but Chilton was touring in support of a humble EP of Memphis soul and some odd-ball covers that had more in common with his Box Tops roots than his Big Star stuff. As usual, I was reluctant to see him play songs like “Volare” when I’d been worshipping at the alter of the first and third Big Star albums (and the handful of songs I liked on the second one, an album I still find distracting at too many points). He had some single out at the time called “No Sex.” I thought it was stupid, as I usually find topical ditties to be. Plus I’d heard from friends who had seen him and even hung out with him that he was moody and a little creepy. Word was he couldn’t be counted on as a performer.
Thankfully I snapped out of it, realizing that I should take advantage of the fact that I was in my early 20s and the doorman used to let me into almost any show without charge. What did I have to lose, except the assumed validity of me preconceptions?
If memory serves he fronted a trio: him on guitar, some pretty slick, stick-thin (possibly fretless) bassist, and a drummer. The Memphis-style novelty numbers (imagine Rufus Thomas singing his stuff in Chilton’s whiny, twangy voice) worked live. Chilton was a really good guitarist, ripping off tasty licks on a Telecaster. People were shouting out for Big Star numbers now and then, but true to reports he gave off a slightly threatening aura, an aura that threatened to walk off stage if people couldn’t get into the here and now. I forget, he may have played a Big Star song or two during his set, and he may have played a Box Tops song. Maybe. What I do remember clearly is that for his encore he announced that he would now deliver on all expectations. He played a half dozen Big Star classics, from “When My Baby’s Beside Me” to “Kangaroo.” He played “The Letter.” He ended with a really sweet version of the Bacharach/David song “The Look of Love.” It was a marvelous ending to what started as a surprisingly fun set.
As a performer/person, Chilton was inscrutable throughout the show. The guy obviously oozed musicality, but it was hard to get a sense of what he was after. He was the opposite, say, of Joe Strummer. No wonder his career was all over the place. I know people like this in real life and wish they could get some focus, commit to something. Regardless, Chilton left a trail of good music through the years.
By special request of Townsman Hrrundivbakshi, in the comments on this thread, on behalf of Alex Chilton, please see this piece on Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Sadly the Soul Train interview seems to have been wiped clean from YouTube.
UPDATED: Charlie Gillett also dead.